Is text messaging better than church bells and loud-hailers?

Professor Gail Kinman reports from the Society's Annual Conference.

19 May 2015

The methods used to alert members of the public in the UK to civil emergencies vary by location. Systems currently used include door knocking, landline phone calls, PA systems, loudhailers and even church bells. The ability to provide warnings at the earliest opportunity can enable people to take positive action to reduce the human impact of emergency public health threats. It is particularly important to get alert messages out to members of the public who are ‘on the move.’ Ninety-two per cent of the UK population possess mobile phones, so there is strong potential for issuing speedy, precisely targeted alerts by text about large-scale emergencies such as floods, terrorism and the deliberate release of hazardous materials. Nonetheless, getting it right is not an easy task. Messages need to be intrusive, inclusive, brief, unambiguous and action focused – often when little is known about the severity of the situation.

Emma Jones from Public Health England presented the findings of trials conducted in three UK locations by the Civil Contingencies Secretariat, with support from mobile phone companies. The trials explored the views of members of the public towards text message alerts and the likely behaviour responses. The trials were conducted in Glasgow (representing an urban environment with high population density and good phone coverage) and Suffolk (representing a rural area with patchy phone coverage). The third trial was conducted at the Emergency Planning College, in order to test both SMS and Cell broadcast technologies.

Members of the public were initially informed about the trials through a public information campaign, letting them know that they would receive test messages. Evaluation of the public response was conducted via a series of focus groups, an online survey and a short telephone survey. Feedback from people involved in the trial indicated that more than one in seven read the messages as soon as they received them, despite the fact that more than half (58 per cent) thought the messages were spam. Overall, however, public acceptance of the proposed text message alerting system was high.

Findings from the focus groups identified six themes: intentions to comply (i.e. to follow or ignore advice); trust (was the messenger trustworthy?); perceptions and expectations (expectations of the behaviour of others); communication and information needs (additional sources of information); practicalities (what if people had their phone switched off?) and criticisms and compliments of the method which have provided information that can be used to increase compliance with health advice. Dr Jones particularly emphasised the importance of increasing public trust in the messages and making them explicitly action-focused.

- Professor Gail Kinman is at the University of Bedfordshire.

- More reports from the Society's Annual Conference will appear on this site over the coming days and weeks, with extras in the July print edition.